The author of this review is a personal friend of director Jonathan Berry and actor Jack Miggins and has a keen professional interest in their work.
In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, the characters ask “who lives, who dies,” and most poignantly, “who tells your story?” In its world premiere at Steep Theatre, Ike Holter’s Red Rex answers that last question… and shows that it’s not always the storyteller you’d want.
A Play Within a Play in a Theater Within a Theater
Steep Theatre is a storefront theater company putting on a racially charged play in a gentrifying/gentrified Chicago neighborhood. The eponymous Red Rex is a storefront theater company putting on a racially charged play in a gentrifying/gentrified Chicago neighborhood. This kind of metadrama can run the risk of getting too cutesy, but Steep’s production uses the similarities between real life and fiction to its advantage.
In this writer’s view, Joe Schemoly’s minimal set fits Red Rex’s own stage like a glove yet morphs into the street outside with just a shift of Pete Dully’s lights and a touch of imagination. Likewise, Stefani Azores-Gococo’s costumes perfectly portray the essence of both folks rehearsing for a play and Chicagoans bundled up for midwinter. Or, in the case of Wisconsin transplant Max (Nate Faust), casually chilling outside in a T-shirt and jeans.
Artists Hungry for Authenticity, Limited by Artifice
As the sixth of seven plays in Holter’s “Rightlynd Saga,” a cycle of stories about one Chicago neighborhood, Red Rex contains nods to its predecessors but can be appreciated entirely on its own. In a world where white people with money can stroll into black and brown spaces, look around, and say ‘This is mine now,’ this show strips that familiar sequence bare through the microcosm of one theater company, one production, one stolen story.
Desperate to give Red Rex the hit it needs to make the leap from obscurity to cultural relevance, playwright, producer, and director Lana (Amanda Powell) takes the loose outline of a decades-old Rightlynd family tragedy and dresses it up into a star-crossed, politically charged interracial romance. She has a cheerfully ruthless executive director (Chris Chmelik) slashing obstacles out of her way; a Jeff-winning, New York-bound set designer in Max; and a doggedly ethical and masterfully competent stage manager (Aurora Adachi-Winter giving new meaning to the phrase ‘slow burn’).
Steep Theatre Asks What a Story Is Worth
Centrally, she also has the cast of her two-hander: company member Adam (Joel Reitsma) and newbie Nicole (Jessica Dean Turner). Or to put it another way: Adam, a white man; and Nicole, a Black woman, from the neighborhood, whose authenticity and passion Lana hopes to use to make her play shine. While Reitsma captures the quintessential white moderate, more concerned with not being perceived as the bad guy than with actually doing the work of solidarity with marginalized people, Turner pulls off the remarkable feat of a highly experienced performer embodying a first-time actor. She gives what strikes this writer as shocking immediacy to the conundrums and compromises at the heart of Red Rex.
Outside of all the conflict between cast, crew, and company, there is one more character. Lifelong Rightlynd resident Trevor (Debo Balogun) knows the truth behind Lana’s play, and he’s not about to let the interlopers of Red Rex colonize it without a fight. That would be enough for an interesting story, but Holter goes further and asks the hard questions. How can you take someone’s real, messy life and twist it into something safe and palatable? Why is a storefront theater production, audiences barely half-full, so important as to make people lie, cheat, and steal? Just what is wrong with these people?
Art may be a labor of love. As Steep Theatre shows, though, sometimes the ones we think we love are the ones we hurt the most.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Ike Holter (Playwright)
Jessica Dean Turner (Nicole)
Chris Chmelik (Greg)
Aurora Adachi-Winter (Tori)
Amanda Powell (Lana)
Nate Faust (Max)
Joel Reitsma (Adam)
Debo Balogun (Trevor)
Jeri Marshall (u/s Nicole)
Jack Miggins (u/s Greg/Adam)
Jin Park (u/s Tori)
Morgan Lavenstein (u/s Lana)
Ben Kaye (u/s Max)
Kris Downing (u/s Trevor)
Jonathan Berry (Director
Jon Ravenscroft (Stage Manager)
Joe Schermoly (Scenic Designer)
Pete Dully (Lighting Designer)
Stefani Azores-Gococo (Costume Designer)
Sarah D. Espinoza (Sound Designer)
Emily Hartig (Props Designer)
Christina Gorman (Violence & Intimacy Designer)
Kendra Miller (Dramaturg)
Lyonel Reneau (Assistant Director)
Ellen Willett (Production Manager)
Greg Williamson (Technical Director)
Anthony Harden (Assistant Stage Manager)
Now through Saturday, March 2
Thursday - Saturday @ 8:00 PM
Sunday @ 3:00 PM
-Open Captioning: Sunday, February 17
-Audio Description/Touch Tour: Saturday, February 23
Two hours, fifteen minutes with one intermission
Steep Theatre Company
1115 W. Berwyn Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
General Admission Tickets: $27
Reserved Seat Tickets: $38
Access Tickets: $10
For tickets call 773-649-3186 or visit the Steep Theatre website
This production is intended for adult audiences.
About the Author:
Harold Jaffe is a poet, playwright, amateur trapeze artist, freelance greeting card designer, and now, unexpectedly, a theater critic. He earned a BS in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Olin College and since returning to Chicago has worked extensively with Cave Painting Theater Company and the late great Oracle Productions. His chapbook Perpetual Emotion Machine is now available at Women & Children First, and his reviews of shows around town are available right here.